In the middle of the last century, Norman Vincent Peale was a popular writer and motivational speaker. A Dutch Reformed Church preacher, Peale was the author of the best-selling Power of Positive Thinking. First published in 1952, the book ultimately sold 7 million copies and was a breakthrough combination of psychology and Christianity.
Peale made it clear the book wasn’t intended as a theological treatise. It was, he said, “written with the sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life.” It promised to teach readers how to:
• believe in yourself and in everything you do
• build new power and determination
• develop the power to reach your goals
• break the worry habit and achieve a relaxed life
• improve your personal and professional relationships
• assume control over your circumstances
• be kind to yourself
Peale’s preaching and his books were rooted in Philippians 4:13. In the King James Version that verse is presented as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Peale did a great deal of good for an awful lot of people, especially those who were plagued by self-doubt.
I was one of those people who benefited immensely from Peale’s books and preaching. In fact, I give him credit for beginning the process that led me into the Catholic Church, showing me something I never got out of the Episcopal Church, namely that Christianity can be a practical tool for everyday living.
Looking back, I don’t recall him ever saying anything that contradicted Catholic teaching.
However, that King James Version quotation seems to turn God into a McDonald’s drive-through clerk sitting at the window waiting to take whatever order we put in – for a better job, for solving are money problems, for getting along with our wife, for dealing with difficult people. It seems to promise God will give us exactly what we ordered.
This isn’t the way it works, and this is a perfect example of why translations of the Bible are so important and why modern translations are some important.
The question is, what does the word “do” mean? Was Paul writing with the modern meaning of do, which is to accomplish something, or did the KJV translators understand “do” in a different context?
If you read all of chapter 4, it is plain that St. Paul is writing the epistle from a prison cell. It’s easy to infer that he was miserable.
So, if Paul could in fact do (in the modern context) “all things through Christ who strengthens me” he would’ve simply pulled the bars apart, broken his chains, and left. He didn’t.
Instead, he told the Philippians to “have no anxiety at all, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your request known to God. Then,” he said, “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Paul goes on to say, in verse 12, “I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.
“Still,” St. Paul says, “it was kind of you to share in my distress.”
It is plain, that what Paul is saying is that we can “endure all things through Christ,” that through prayer and thanksgiving we can find “the peace of God that surpassed all understanding,” not — as I, and I believe, at lot of others assumed — that we can simply put in our order at the McDonald’s drive-through and God will give us whatever we think we want.
I don’t think Peale had any intention of turning God into a short-order order taker. Rather, I think he was trying to say, as Paul said, that if we put our trust in God, if we work hard, we can have peace regardless of the outcome; that if we asked God for a better job, but didn’t get it, we can with faith endure the disappointment and carry on.